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Examining the Association Between Autistic Traits and Atypical Sensory Reactivity: A Twin Study

Journal article
Authors M. J. Taylor
P. Gustafsson
H. Larsson
Christopher Gillberg
Sebastian Lundström
P. Lichstenstein
Published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Volume 57
Issue 2
Pages 96-102
ISSN 0890-8567
Publication year 2018
Published at Gillberg Neuropsychiatry Centre
Centre for Ethics, Law, and Mental Health
Pages 96-102
Language en
Keywords autism, twin study, sensory reactivity, genetics, spectrum disorder, general-population, developmental disorders, early-childhood, children, symptoms, etiology, adults, overlap, abnormalities, Psychology, Pediatrics, Psychiatry
Subject categories Psychology, Pediatrics, Psychiatry


Objective: Atypical responses to sensory stimuli are common features of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Consequently, atypical sensory reactivity (SR) is now a diagnostic feature of ASD. Quantitative genetic research on ASD has overlooked these symptoms, however. We therefore investigated the association between autistic traits and SR using twin methods. Method: Autistic traits and SR were assessed by 2 separate scales in 12,419 Swedish twin pairs (n = 3,586 monozygotic [MZ], n = 8,833 dizygotic [DZ]) when the twins were 9 or 12 years of age. The classic twin design estimated the degree to which etiological factors associated with autistic traits were also associated with SR, and the degree to which such shared factors explained the covariance between these phenotypes. DeFries Fulker analysis estimated the genetic correlation between screening diagnoses of ASD, defined broadly and strictly, and SR. Results: Autistic traits and SR were both highly heritable (62%-75% and 66%-71%, respectively). There was a moderate phenotypic correlation between autistic traits and SR (r = 0.47). Genetic influences on these phenotypes correlated moderately (genetic correlation = 0.60). These overlapping genetic factors explained most of the correlation between autistic traits and SR. Genetic correlations with SR increased for broad ASD (genetic correlation = 0.72) and strict ASD (genetic correlation = 0.80). Conclusion: The genetic overlap observed between autistic traits and SR lends quantitative genetic support to the notion that ASD and SR are strongly linked. Stich symptoms may thus comprise part of the ASD genotype, as well as phenotype. Associations persisted across all definitions of ASD, indicating a genetic link between the broader ASD phenotype and SR.

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